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Not Always Warranted: The Risks of Unnecessary Surgery


Surgery – the word alone is enough to provoke feelings of dread. There are few things more disheartening than hearing your doctor recommend a surgical procedure. Such operations can easily take hours to complete, and require rehabilitation periods that can drag on for months. For some unfortunate patients, the body may never regain its pre-injury vigor and capabilities. Despite these drawbacks, patients can take solace in the fact that surgery is only prescribed when needed, and that surgical operations enable successful recoveries from both injury and disease.

But is this always the case? Yes, most surgeries are certainly justified, but unnecessary surgical operations are not unheard of. In fact, they are more common than you probably think. A University of Michigan study estimated that extraneous surgeries cost about $150 billion each year. Even more disconcerting than this hefty financial tab is the human toll from such operations; a report published in the Journal of American Medical Association found that approximately 12,000 Americans die each year from ultimately needless surgeries.

After reading such figures, you might be wondering what surgical procedures are most likely to be overused. While there is no definite answer to this question, a number of medical experts have weighed in on the issue, highlighting some procedures that might be particularly risky or ineffective. Before reading the proceeding list, be advised that it is always best to consult with medical professionals when dealing with a condition or injury that might require surgery. In some cases, it may prove necessary to consult multiple doctors who specialize in certain areas of medical treatment.

Hysterectomy – Hysterectomies are performed exclusively on women, and involve the removal of the uterus in order to treat a number of maladies. This surgery is noticeably popular treatment option among American doctors; US women are twice as likely to get a hysterectomy as British women, and four times as likely as their Australian counterparts. The problem with this approach is that many of these hysterectomies might be completely unnecessary. A 2005 University of California, Los Angeles study found that hysterectomies are only appropriate for women at a high risk of contracting cancer. Otherwise, the procedure might do more harm than good. Other doctors echo this viewpoint, arguing that most hysterectomies performed in the US are simply not needed. In a 2007 CNN article, a gynecological surgeon estimated that up to 85 percent of hysterectomies could be replaced with other methods of treatment.

Angioplasty – Millions of Americans suffer from heart and cardiovascular problems, so it’s not surprising that 1.2 angioplasties are performed annually. This surgery unclogs the heart’s arteries through a combination of small balloons and tube-shaped cages called stents. Some evidence suggests that doctor’s perform this surgery too often; one study reported that heart medications were just as effective in treating artery plaque as angioplasties.

Heartburn Surgery – There’s a good reason why you see so many ads for heartburn medication on TV. The number of Americans who suffer from heartburn at least once per month stands at 60 million, with 16 million suffering from this condition on a daily basis. Given the widespread nature of heartburn, it’s completely understandable why so many patients opt for surgery to alleviate their symptoms. Unfortunately, this procedure (known as a nissen fundoplication) doesn’t always work, and can lead to problems like bloating and difficulty swallowing.

Complex Spinal Fusion – Complex spinal fusion surgery is usually used to remedy spinal stenosis, a miserable condition in which the spine’s surrounding bones and tissues begin to encroach on the spine itself. Spinal fusion surgery attempts to treat this chronic problem by fusing individual spinal vertebrae together. When two vertebrae are welded into a singular whole, there is obviously no longer any motion between them. In theory, this reduces the amount of pressure placed on the spinal nerves, and prevents the formation of painful bone spurs.

In practice, spinal fusion surgery may actually be harmful to the heath of the patient. In an exhaustive study, a professor from Oregon Health & Science University examined the medical records of 30,000 patients who underwent spinal fusion surgery. The professor found that those who chose this treatment were three times as more likely to succumb to post-surgery complications than patients who opted for less complex surgeries. To add insult to injury, additional research has concluded that spinal fusion surgery produces results no better than physical or behavioral therapy.

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